The Concept of “Mental (In)capacity” can never be a basis to deprive people with psychosocial disabilities and mental health problems of “legal capacity”

by Jagannath Lamichhane

Last week, I came across a Facebook post of a dear friend, which moved me to tears. Gabor Gombos, a former United Nations member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) — and a man whom I always looked at with high esteem as a source of knowledge and inspiration for the millions of people in the mental health and psychosocial disability rights movement across the world — was in a state of utter despair.

Gabor had written on his wall page: “Doctors say there is no hope for Kati, my only wife in my life, my co-worker, the mother of our child, who survived three days. We jointly did what I became famous of. We had hard times recently as well. Now she is slowly dying. I am dying too. Life is meaningless and impossible”.

His message affected me deeply and I felt depressed the entire day. I never thought I’d have to read such words of despair coming from a man of such strength and accomplishment in the field. Gabor had even gone as far as to indicate he was most inclined to hang himself. In response, there were hundreds of comments on his Facebook page praying for the good health of his wife and his own strength. I also wrote a few words: “My prayers Gabor, stay strong’.

A few days passed through which time and again I would think of Gabor and the loss to the movement and myself were he to really take his own life. I was quite worried actually.

A couple of days later, I heard about the United Nations Committee on the CRPD General Comment on article 12 ie legal equality (legal capacity) of people with disabilities, including psychosocial and mental health problems.  Although article 12 of the disability convention was already a revolutionary article giving equal legal recognition of people with disabilities — including mental health problems and psychosocial disabilities — in absence of the United Nations CRPD Committee’s authoritative interpretation of the article, its interpretation remained controversial since the adoption of the CRPD in 2006.

However, this general comment brought an end to the ongoing controversy, endorsing equal rights and equal recognition of people with disabilities before the law. The general comment has explicitly interpreted that legal discrimination on the basis of disability or in the name of mental (in)capacity is clearly a violation of human rights and against international human rights principles. The general comment has highlighted that there has been a general failure to understand that the human rights-based model of disability implies a shift from the substitute decision-making paradigm to one that is based on supported decision-making.

The general comment discards the concept of “mental capacity” as a social and political construct lacking an objective, scientific and naturally occurring phenomenon. The CRPD Committee explicitly recommends the state parties to guarantee civil and political rights for people with disabilities, even if they might require support in decision-making. While developing a policy framework in the country level, the Committee clearly recommends that support in decision-making must not be used as a justification for limiting other fundamental rights of persons with disabilities, especially the right to vote, the right to marry (or establish a civil partnership) and found a family, reproductive rights, parental rights, medical treatment and the right to liberty.

Most importantly, the interpretation heralds an end to the era of forced psychiatry, a long and much-awaited battle in the fields of psychiatry and human rights. Following this committee report, involuntary detention in psychiatric or mental health facilities without consent is now considered a violation of human rights and punishment can be sought.

It was great news. I had not expected such a bold and clear interpretation of the article 12 of the CRPD so early. And it is because of people like Gabor and so many others, who fought their whole lives to establish equal rights and stop the practice of involuntary detention, that the interpretation has been possible. This general comment is the greatest victory yet for the thousands of millions of people living with psychosocial disabilities and mental health problems across the world.

But while the community was celebrating this this historical moment, I couldn’t help but think of Gabor’s tragic situation. All of the sudden, I saw a thank you message from Gabor on his Facebook page–full of emotion, hope and victory. He wrote: “thank you all for your empathy, love and support. That means a lot. Kati’s health is slightly improved. No immediate danger. This morning, she was much more attentive than before. I spoke to her about the General Comment on the CRPD article 12. I can’t know how much she understood. Once I heard about the general comment I felt some peace. Pain is very much there and sorrow, but also peace”.

It was upon reading this that my eyes filled with tears. I reminded myself how indispensable liberty and freedom is in an individual’s life.  We do not have control over our future and destiny and at any time, we might suffer from disease, disability, mental illness, tragedy and the like. However, no misery can be a cause to take away an individual’s right to live as he/she pleases. Now a new era has begun where mental illness cannot be the reason or justification to deprive people of equal legal and human rights. I salute Gabor and the countless others who made it possible.

 

 

 

Why the Global Movement for Mental Health? Time to Join.

Countries in crisis are a breeding ground for ill health. The social, political and economic conditions harbored by crises – from Tsunamis and earthquakes to conflicts – make countries ripe for disease. That’s why we see figures related to infant and maternal mortality, life expectancy and most communicable and non-communicable diseases posing a real threat to the livelihoods of a good chunk of the population in countries like the Sudan, Afghanistan or Iraq.

These factors of instability, destruction and violence have a huge impact on the mental health of a population as well. In fact, it has been proven that in countries where conflict is present the rate of mental health problems are higher. Take Afghanistan for example: it is estimated that 73% of Afghan women show symptoms of depression, 84% suffer from anxiety, and 48% from post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, the figures are not much better for men either, but, women being the most vulnerable group, suffer most.

In many African countries, the situation concerning mental health is simply diabolical. Decades of conflict and violence matched by extreme poverty and destitution have left huge populations in a mental crisis. However, as dire as the situation is, these populations are the “forgotten,” “condemned” to a life of “misery and abuse,” according to photographer and journalist Robin Hammond, who recently published a collection of revealing photographs depicting the suffering of those with mental health problems in African countries which are most in crisis.

The images are telling in themselves and speak volumes about the unthinkable extent to which men, women and children are being treated as sub-human – caged, locked-up, chained, abused, beaten and bruised – within their own communities. In many instances, as the photos describe, there seems to be no alternative available in the context of abject poverty, lack of awareness and access.

One photograph which stands out is of a 13 year- old Ahmed Adan Ahmed, who “spends his days walking in circles, or sitting running his hands through the sand at his feet,” as “for 10 years, he has been tied to a stick under the tarpaulin of a tent in a camp for Internally Displaced People in Galkayo, Somalia.” What is painstakingly hard to digest is that his mother Fawzia “sees no other option – if she doesn’t tie him he will run away,” she told the photographer.

Ahmed Adan Ahmed

In another photograph from Nigeria, the image is perhaps even more distressing: a “patient” is tied to a tree with his hands joined as if begging. The caption for the image reads: “Native Doctor Lekwe Deezia claims to heal mental illness through the power of prayer and traditional herbal medicines. While receiving treatment, which can sometimes take months, his patients are chained to trees in his courtyard. They begged the photographer for food – they say they are only fed once a day, sometimes only once every 3 days. The Niger Delta, Nigeria.”

Nigerian Man Chained to Tree

These photos and the collection by Robin Hammond is perhaps one of the most comprehensive collections of images which portray the devastating reality of the negligence of mental health issues and of those who suffer on the ground in some of the world’s most marginalized countries in communities. In the midst of upheaval, they are left to suffer in silence.

In countries like Somalia, ravaged by over two decades of civil conflict, the World Health organization says that at least one in three people have some kind of mental health problem. And yet, the way in which such a major problem is being dealt with is by not dealing with it at all. The victims of disaster are being made to bear the brunt of their countries’ crisis — well demonstrated in the way in which those who suffer from mental illness are living across Africa.

But I have to admit that when I saw these photographs, I couldn’t help but think about the situation in my own country, Nepal. Centuries of exploitation and poverty, followed by a brutal civil conflict and social, political and economic instability has left the country ravaged. In many ways, those who suffer from mental health problems in Nepal share a similar fate to those as shown in Robin’s photographs. One image, in particular, of a 12-year old boy, Prabin, whom I came across years ago, keeps coming to mind. He was chained and locked up for seven years because he “lost his mind”. His father had to leave his job as a policeman during the Maoist insurgency because of the fear of violence. And when Prabin was two and half years old, his father went to Malaysia for work and returned home only after four years. Since then, no one had been employed in the family and one family member needed always to be around to look after Prabin.

There were many cross-cutting issues I saw in Prabin’s family which are symptomatic of all countries in crisis— poverty, disability, mental illness, trauma from the conflict, lack of healthcare, migration and unemployment — all of which collectively pushed the whole family into a predicament, with Prabin at the centre of the suffering. Prabin is no longer in chains thanks to a few well-wishers, but thousands like him, young boys and girls across Asia and Africa, are still being chained, locked up and abused. Prabin’s photo is pasted below.

Youngboylookingup

If the simple fact that massive human rights abuses and violations don’t inspire you to act, consider this.

If the simple fact that massive human rights abuses and violations don’t inspire you to act, consider this:  Some of the most famous people in the world, contributing the most to our global prosperity, had mental health issues they faced.  The only difference is they were treated with respect, had access to quality social and health care services, and used their mental anguish to fuel their trade .  Some of the greats include Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Oprah Winfrey, and others mentioned on our Famous Faces page.  Imagine a world where all those with mental health issues received timely support and treatment, and used their emotional depth as a force for good?

Today’s blog post is just a reminder, to myself and others who are working towards achieving the goals of the Movement for Global Mental Health, of why we need to pool our efforts to address this immediate crisis. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget why we do what we do. I hope this serves as a reminder to us all.

by Jagannath Lamichhane

With support from Bidushi Dhungel

Hidden Pictures and the World Health Organization: A Journey to Uncover Global Stories of Mental Health

Hidden Pictures Film

Here is a video we are all about right now at iFred. It’s a summary of the film Hidden Pictures by filmmaker and physician Delaney Ruston. Ruston’s work highlights both the serious need for global mental health resources and the power our personal stories can have

iFred joined global leaders to support the World Health Organization in crafting the Mental Health Global Action Plan by in 2012, that was then adopted by the United Nations in 2013.  Countries around the world convened to discuss implementation of the action plan for Global Mental Health Day in October, 2013, and, with policy highlighted in Ruston’s film. Have you browsed the document yet? You can read an mhGAP summery here or the entire document here. on creating social change.

Watch the WHO and Ruston’s video here and tell us what you think:

Hidden Pictures